Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Search of Condors

If you have followed the story of the California Condors over the last few decades then you know how close this species came to extinction. I couldn’t even begin to tell the whole story here, but I have provided links to some relevant reading material below. In short, it was over twenty years ago when it was realized that only 22 wild condors were known to be living. At that time a handful of scientists had been tracking the condors in an attempt to reverse the trend and discover their secrets. Their conservation efforts had been failing, and America’s largest bird was still diminishing in numbers. To make matters worse, nobody fully understood why the birds were dying. There were some obvious factors contributing to their death toll. The usual suspects in bird species decline such as habitat destruction and pesticides, but there was still more. As the downward spiral continued, the only thing left for the recovery program to do was to capture the remaining condors in order to study them, and to initiate a controversial captive breeding program in order to save the species from total collapse. It was eventually learned that the major cause of death in wild condors was lead poisoning. The slow accumulation of lead building up to toxic levels was causing their digestive systems to shut down, eventually leading to starvation. But where was all that lead coming from? Studies have proven the primary source to be lead bullets! Condors being scavengers are known to feed on carcasses of dead animals. When hunters indiscriminately shoot wild creatures for the sheer sport of it, using lead bullets, and leave the carcasses or entrails lying around, the condors find them. The impact of the rifling bullet causes fragmentation of the projectile and spreads microscopic fragments of lead throughout the body of the prey. The effect of lead contamination on the unique makeup of the condor’s digestive system renders it paralyzed. Condors are especially susceptible too due to their long life, and slow reproductive rate.

But there have been some encouraging successes for the recovery program(s) to celebrate. The latest being the first wild condor breeding at Pinnacles National Monument in 100 years. Pinnacles, in central California, has been one of the designated release sites for condors from the captive breeding program. The site has miles of high rocky peaks and ledges perfect for condors to live in. Our group had an opportunity to hike up to a view point where the nest is visible, albeit from great distance. We had the privilege of meeting with a talented lady called Jess, who is a biologist with the Pinnacles Condor Program. Jess is a young veteran of the successful Yellowstone wolf project. She and others from the team have been spending a great many hours using a powerful spotting scope to keep an eye on the parenting couple and their nest. Condors breed for life, and all of the released condors at Pinnacles have tags for identification. We were invited to take turns looking into the scope to see the nest, and in this case, the male, sitting on the baby condor. They take turns approximately every 3 days. I don’t know how they did it, but the team actually removed the real egg from the nest, which was discovered to be dead, and replaced it with a viable captive bred egg. This is an important step in their eventual self reliance as it will allow the parent birds to raise a chick in the wild. Something they must re-learn in order for the species to truely survive.

We waited around and spent some time talking to Jess, and eventually were treated to a great spectacle. First, one condor was spotted on the wing far away above where the nest is. It then landed high on the rocks, but another one was spotted still too far away for identification. Soon another large black shape was spotted soaring down below and eventually flew directly in front of our location at about 50 yards; a large adult condor with all the classic markings. That got us pretty excited, but awhile later, two adult condors were spotted soaring along the rocky ledge to the west. They followed the rocks gliding gracefully, and soon came into view directly above us. Their flight path was solid and true with level wings and the classic long, splayed out, flight feathers. Later on there were a total of 4 condors in the sky around us, 2 adults, and two younger birds. Some of them flew so close we could read their tags with the naked eye. We saw tag (3)17, and tag (4)63 for sure. They circled above us as though they were curious, and the group of hikers around us was spellbound. Jess was a flurry of activity as she scrambled to take notes and spot tags. Sue and I were amazed remembering all the times we hiked here before and had not had any condor sightings, and now we were seeing an awesome flying display. Later on as we hiked on to complete the high peaks loop, we spotted more condors on the wing at distance, and saw one land in a tall pine tree. Sue and I sat observing it across a ravine with binoculars while it sat and watched hikers pass below on the trail unaware of the rare bird that was perched above. It was such a great day for watching condors we were almost forgetting to appreciate the landscape and wildflowers all around. This was an unforgettable day on which we had experienced exactly what we came seeking. We could not have scripted it much better. Other local areas where condors are frequently spotted include the Ventana Wilderness, and the Big Sur coast.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr
Click here to see Dave’s pictures on
Recommended book: Return of the Condor by John Moir
Recommended website: Pinnacles Condor Program
Recommended website: Ventana Wildlife Society
Recovery Program Partners and Collaborators links page (Santa Barbara Zoo)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Edgewood and San Bruno Mountain

We had plans to visit some family up on the northern peninsula last Saturday, but we weren't about to miss out on some hiking miles before making ourselves presentable for visiting; Lest we forget, it is spring in the Bar Area. There simply aren't any better days for enjoying some trail time anywhere. It’s getting to be about that time when we tend to choose hikes based on the potential for early spring blooms of all types. We stopped in at Edgewood and hiked several loops around that semi-urban, yet pleasantly diverse landscape, which seems to be tucked away just out of reach of city bustle. The woods and contours provide enough seclusion to keep the outside world out of mind. We had a nice time there even though it was still too early. We saw pretty good displays of Silver Bush Lupine, and the Indian Warrior is going insane in the shady areas around the bases of the oak groves. Everything else was still sparse.

We decided to move on and check out San Bruno Mountain in the afternoon. We had mild sunlight, but with chilly wind all day. The air was mostly clear with a little bit of haze and high thin clouds. We found a lot more interesting displays here. So much so that I am having a hard time positively identifying most of the species I photo’ed. I labeled my pictures as best I could, but I'm really not an expert. On the website they have a little help, but nothing as extensive as, for example, the wild flower guides for Henry Coe. Some of the wild flower and butterfly species at this site are known to be classified as rare and endangered. We don’t get up here much, but based on this hike, I’d say that has been our own fault for ignoring it. I really enjoyed the sweeping views, and even though it’s close to the city, the air circulation is excellent, making the air quality much better you would ever expect near a major metropolitan area. We hiked the Summit Loop Trail, and part of the Ridge Trail, and wished we had more time. But we vowed to come back for a better look soon, and to identify all the pictures.

Click here to see my pictures on flickr

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Pacheco Falls

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been back to Pacheco Falls. My last visit was when my wife and I did a hike there only months after the Lick fire, which swept through the area along Live Oak Spring Trail close to the falls. During that hike we were encouraged by the extent of recovery that we saw, but were also bummed out by the sight of numerous burned out skeletons of trees that would take years to rot out and fall. Even the trees that were showing signs of recovery bore the ugly scars, which looked likely to remain noticeable for decades. Another discomforting sight was the amount of silt and soil present in the darkened, turbid, waters of the falls, indicative of the extent of erosion damage resulting from the effects of the blaze. I was curious to find out how much difference a couple of years would make. Pacheco Falls is very seasonal, so the best time for this hike is late winter or early spring when the flows are the best. But hiking in this season also means that the trails will be wet, a little muddy, and in some places, downright swampy. The ticks are out in force right now too. I remember doing this very hike one year when there were many down trees along Live Oak Spring Trail, and getting around them, or through them, gave the little buggers perfect opportunity to hitch a ride on pack and clothing. I must have picked at least 6 of them off of myself during that hike, prompting me to strip down on the trail to thoroughly check out my clothes for any remaining blood sucking insects. It would have been better to have a companion for that, but when you’re alone, you have to make do however you can. Fine outdoor fun that was!

You can skip this paragraph if you’d rather not read a lengthy trail route description, as I was not using GPS. My route for this hike begins at the Coyote Creek entrance at the end of Gilroy Hot Springs Road. The road is narrow, and there’s very little parking down there, so being early is recommended. You cannot park on the road, but that is really just common sense. In past years, they would let you slide without paying day use fees for this entrance, but that has changed. In order to hike in from there, you first must stop in at Hunting Hollow along the way and use the pre-pay envelope system to deposit your exact change of $6, an increase of only a buck. You have to begin on Coit Road, but my preference is to find the junctions to bring me to Grizzly Gulch Trail, all the way to the Dexter Trail, to Wasno Road. This way it’s about 3.1 miles to the Kelly Lake Trail junction @ about 2400 feet, but there are some really steep sections, especially the Dexter Trail. This is the shortest, roughest, and steepest route. A good alternative route from Coyote to the same junction would be to hike an extra 0.9 miles down Coit Road to the Anza Trail, and use Jackson Road to take you all the way to Wasno Road. This route is easier, but will be about 4.9 miles to the junction. From there you descend all the way to Kelly Lake @ about 1600 feet and choose which way to climb back up to Wagon Road at about 2250 feet. You can use Kelly Lake Trail or Coit Road. Live Oak Spring Trail will take you down to the falls trail finally descending to about 1250 feet at the base of the falls. Round trip distance is about 16.4 miles by the short route, with somewhere over 4000 feet of total elevation gain for the round trip. This is not a casual hike, but not quite into the “butt kicker” category.

The weather alternated from slightly cloudy and cool, to brief periods of sunshine and subtle warmth beaming through the parting clouds. The sprinkling of sunshine brought out some fledgling early displays of a few wild flower species, but the best is still to come. The most interesting displays were some Giant Trilliums near Coyote Creek; first ones I’ve seen this year, and two of the four different species of Goosberry known to bloom at Coe (Credit to Lee Dittmann for posting the link to the Bay Area Hiker discussion forum). The views along Live Oak Spring Trail were as expected. There was much regeneration, but still quite a bit of fire-scarred, standing, dead wood, with new growth rising up around. The far away views were as brilliant green as any views you may have ever seen of the British Isles. In all of my previous visits to this interesting little series of falls, I (we) have been completely alone to ponder the remoteness of this place, and hear the unhindered sounds of the breeze and cascading water. But on this hike I was surprised to encounter people. There was a group of people camped out at Kelly Lake, who later hiked to the falls and arrived just as I was about to leave. I had seen two other smaller groups in the area too. Look for the stone duck to lead you over to the jagged cliff overlook area to get the only safe views of the upper sections of the fall. You would have to be a bird to get a better view. North Fork Pacheco Creel cascades down into a series of rock pools like some kind of secret grotto inside the rocky chasm below, and the waters are flowing clear and clean. At the lower viewpoint further down the trail, the lower cascade plunges into a fairly large pool that would be great to swim in if it were warm enough. It’s a really unique area, secluded and usually sparsely visited. Perfect for a moderately challenging early spring ramble.

Click here to see my pictures
Click the play button for a breif video of the upper falls

Video of lower fall

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Conway Trails

On Sunday morning, the last day or our winter trip, the morning broke clear and cold. The previous night had brought snow, but the storms had drifted away, and colder air moved it and deposited hard crystallized ice and snow everywhere. I went outside to run an errand for Sue, and happened to glance up at upper Yosemite fall and was immediately stuck by the sight. Overnight, the shifting wind currents had been blowing the falling water and vaporous sheets of mist to and fro in the chilled air, and had formed a massive inverted funnel of icey snow on the cliffs behind the fall. I looked around at the intricately jagged cliffs of the north rim and could see there was a gleaming, shimmering, coating of ice and hardened snow that had been fast-frozen around the rocks. This presented a textured effect to the eye, as the darkened areas in the cracks and crevasses contrasted with the soft white shapes. In rather childlike fashion, I hurried back to the room and excitedly told Sue that I was going out to get some pictures before the sun came out and started melting the frosty ice. We had been packing to check out and leave, but were planning to get another hike in before departing. Sue had wanted to do some meditations, but changed her mind and now wanted to go strolling with me. So we quickly finished our packing, grabbed some snacks, bundled up, and rushed out for another morning walk around the lodge and village area. Somehow the sights in the valley never loose their magical appeal. I could spend the whole day just walking around there any time except for the summer crowds, but when the weather conditions add their special seasonal variation to the canvas, and the air is quiet and absolutely fresh and stimulating, it really is possible to loose all your cares for that fleeting interlude of time that you have to really savor it. It’s not a conscious thing. It happens naturally if your heart is in the right place. Somehow the universe just seems happy, and I feel welcomed by it.

It was hard to get good pictures in such low light, but soon the sun rose just enough to provide some decent shots. Out in the meadows the cool mist buoyed by the breaking sunlight drifted around amongst the trees and rose in columns while the pitter-patter of melting ice crystals fell from the evergreens and leafless branch structures. The morning light began splashing color around and even created a slight misty rainbow at the lower fall. The sunbeams streamed in through the trees and the brought out the seasonal brilliance. It didn’t take long before the warmth began to melt the winter display back to a more normal appearance. The display lasted only until about 9:00 am. After that it was blue sky, and sunny, like a spring day. We went back and packed up the car, checked out, and went hiking on the old Conway trails on the valley floor. John Conway built many of the most famous trails in Yosemite back in the 1800s, including the 4 mile, Yosemite Falls, and the original trail to Little Yosemite. He also built some walking trails that wind along the valley floor which combine to form a long loop, and they provide some great views of the many valley features from different perspectives than are offered by the usual roadside tourist photo-op spots. These old trails are still there, if not really maintained very well. But you can still hike them, and it’s a great time. The day had warmed up so much it had become a nice shirt sleeve day. We walked down to El Capitan meadow and back along the river enjoying the sights before getting in the car to head home. We didn’t get back until Sunday evening, and Monday morning rang in like a plague. Ouch! Reality.

Click here to see the photos in flickr

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Fresh Powder

It was snowing when we were up on the rim which later became a light rain as we descended down the trail to the valley again. We woke up on Saturday to find that the drizzling rain that came in late Friday continued on into the late night, and had deposited 3 inches of fresh powder on the valley floor by sun up, and about 3 feet of the stuff fell up at the higher elevations. We had plans to meet up with Sue’s brother Dave and his wife Diane to go snowshoeing up at Badger Pass later, but rising early, we still had plenty of time for a morning walk along the Merced River in the virgin snow. Hardly anyone was around at that hour and it was a really fantastic eye-opener to stroll around and savor the stillness, quiet, and freshness of the new morning. We walked the meadow trails leaving the only (human) footprints, and followed along the river admiring the textures, sounds, colors, and shimmering ice crystals. We had a really nice time before rushing off to meet the others. Click here to see the photos from our morning constitutional in the valley.

Up at Badger Pass there was a light snow falling as we headed out to hike to Dewey Point in snowshoes. All the cars that had been left in the parking lot overnight were basically buried in snow by now, and weren’t going anywhere without a lot of digging. There was a giant snow blower working to keep the rest of the lot clear. Glacier Point Road beyond Badger is usually manicured for cross country skiers, so it was quite a bit easier, but once off onto the trail, the powder was soft and deep. There must have been 5 to 6 feet of hard pack with about 3 foot of fresh new snow. We found ourselves breaking trail along the previously well traveled cross country route # 14 to Dewey Point. These winter-only routes really do not exist except in deep snow. In the summer this area is a swampy meadow with seasonal streams which you probably wouldn’t want to mess with. In some places I found myself sinking in half way up to my knees even in snowshoes with six inch extensions fastened on. It was a lot of fun, but also exhausting, and we took turns leading. The whole area was resplendent in fresh virgin powder so deep that many of the tree limbs seemed to be at their breaking point. If you would reach out with a trekking pole and give a light tap on a snow-covered tree branch, the snow would fall off in clumps, and the branch would immediately spring up into a new location like a catapult. The sky was grey, and there was some misty fog in the air. The snow kept falling most of the morning, but with so much exertion it really didn’t seen cold at all. I had brought more layers than I really needed. I was only using one thin warmth layer with my rain layer over that. The soft powder was perfect temptation for snowball fights, but we all refrained in order to make sure we kept our gloves and clothing as dry as possible. There were a lot more skiers on the trail than those in snowshoes, and they were mostly faster, so they wound up breaking trail for us. But snowshoes need a wider track. It’s not the same kind of workout that you get doing normal hiking. The deep powder creates some resistance to lifting your feet forward, so it’s like going uphill even on fairly level terrain. You are using your musculature in different ways, with a completely different gait. On the road they try to create different “lanes” for skis than for snowshoes, but on the trail it’s all the same track. When we arrived at Dewey Point it seemed like we had gone a lot more distance, but it was really only a few miles. The views here are normally great but on this trip the fog and clouds really limited what we could see. We waited around for awhile, and it would clear a little and then the fog would drift back to show only a grey abyss. We did a loop hike using route #18 to return. By that time the route was well broken in by other snowshoe hikers, so it was actually easier even though there was some uphill. The ridge route gave us some uphill along the way, and would have provided some nice view opportunities except for the cloudy skies. I would really like to do this route in clear weather some time. Sue and I had a really great time and returned to our room while Dave and Diane departed for home.

Click here to see photos from the snowshoe trip.
Added: Click here to see Dave's pictures on

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Falls Trail in Winter

Waking up on the first morning of our winter trip, we quietly began preparing for the day. We had already discussed the options, and decided to head for a nice view point. The trail up the south rim would be nearly impossible in the conditions. There’s a few sheer drop-offs high up on the 4-mile that would be precarious with snow and ice piled up. Unless you wanted to bring tools and do a lot of shoveling and digging. But it’s usually closed anyway. The Falls trail is usually passable even with snow on the upper sections provided that you have some help getting traction. It doesn’t have any seriously risky sections unless there is danger of rock-fall or avalanche, in which case it would be closed. We thought we could probably make it to the top even if it would be crazy to go out to the any of the overlook areas, but the trail was open. The north rim gets more sunlight in winter than the south side. John Muir used to spend a lot of time scrambling around on the ledges around the falls area. He called one section “Sunnyside Bench”, and would even sleep up there sometimes.

We expected to find deep snow at the top, and a possible late storm, but we were prepared. We had winterized our boots, and were using wool socks, and waterproof gaiters, and packed our waterproof gear. We decided not to lug our snowshoes up the trail, so we made due with our Yaktrax. The lower sections of the trail were clear, but were wet with melt water trickling down everywhere. We made our way up the rocky switchbacks and along the ledge out to Columbia Point. The skies were gray and misty which made for poor conditions for photos, but we enjoyed the view opportunities amongst the blooming manzanita. The sweeping view of the south side of the valley had great texture with the snow packed in to all the cracks and creases, and gullies having flows of snow like frozen falls. Sentinel Fall was literally frozen into hard-pack snow. The valley floor had lots of snow remnants, but looked mostly brown in between them with fallen decaying pine needles.

We climbed higher and hiked closer to the falls with the trail now having patches of snow to walk through. As the falls came into view I could immediately notice the huge snow cone collected at the bottom of the upper fall, and traces of ice clinging to the rock walls behind the fall as the wind was blowing the waters one way or the other. As we got higher the snow became deeper and soon the entire trail was in packed snow. We put on our Yaktrax to keep from slipping, and they worked very well. As the faraway peaks of the high Sierra began to appear above the rim everything was covered in snow, and there were icicles clinging to the rocks and fallen wood. As we reached the top we could see that the little creek there was covered in hard-pack snow and the trail signs were almost buried. Even with the Yaktrax the going was getting hard as our footsteps were sinking in sometimes past our knees. At this point we would have been faring better with the snowshoes, but we at least we had the gaiters, and our feet were still dry. We made it out to the edge of the cliffs and enjoyed some time with the open vistas of the valley far below and the snowy high peaks a fitting payoff. It was very quiet and peaceful, and soon a few snow flurries were falling. We knew a storm was coming in so we headed down before it got worse. The wind was kicking up and the water coming over the upper fall was being blown around like vapor. The hike down the trail was a lot nicer with the snow to cushion each footstep. This really is a very different hike this time or year.

Click here to see the photos on flickr

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Yosemite Winter Trip

We had planned a short ‘n’ sweet winter trip to Yosemite this year, and even despite some nagging distractions that threatened to derail our opportunity for escape, we got everything worked out and had a fine weekend. We had originally planned for an early departure on Thursday Feb 25th, a two night stay, returning late Saturday. Some things came up though, and Sue had to stay around most of the day on the 25th. Luckily, with some amazing diligence on the part of my lovely wife, things got shifted a few times and we were able to wind up changing our reservation at the Lodge, and stayed 3 nights returning late Sunday instead. I was impressed. The weather reports had storms coming in so we didn’t know what to expect, but this time of year that’s really not unusual. We packed up the snow chains, weatherized our gear, and made our getaway, arriving just after 6:30 pm. We completely lucked out and got a room in the Cottonwood wing of the Lodge. One of the only sections having only one floor, and includes a view of the falls. There were a few hearty souls holed up at Camp 4 in tents, but we’re not geared up enough for camping in the snow, so we were quite happy to be warm and toasty in the Lodge. Private shower, prepared meals, warm bed, cozy reading chair, and in the bar every evening; enjoying the winter Olympics on TV with a cold micro-brew. Wow! I could seriously get used to this! Not wasting a moment, we got in some nice hiking and snowshoeing under varying weather conditions. I will do some write-ups of these hikes as time permits, but it was just so nice to enjoy the winter experience in our favorite park. Yosemite is quite different in winter. There are plenty of people around, but it’s not crowded. It’s very quiet with crisp clean air, and the sights are even more amazing.

On our first day we decided to hike up the Yosemite Falls trail just to see how far we could get. The valley floor had remnants of snow, but we could see that there was deep snow up high. We decided not to carry snowshoes, but we had our YakTrax which we thought would fair better on the twisty trail. We made it to the top where there was deep snow and great views even under the gloomy skies which made it difficult to get good photos. On Saturday morning we woke up to fresh powder. About 3 inches in the valley, and about 3 feet up at Badger Pass. We had an early morning sightseeing stroll around the lodge area, and later met up with Sue’s brother and his wife for some snowshoeing out to Dewey Point in the falling snow. It was great fun even though the fluffy snow made for a very tiring day. During the night the storms left, colder air moved in, and Sunday morning broke clear and blue with frost and ice. Yosemite Falls had awesome sheets of ice and snow flowing down the course of the upper fall into a huge snow cone at the bottom. The sun came out and we hiked the old 1800s era Conway Trails on the valley floor with all the old familiar sights seeming like new places in their ‘other’ season glow. And then we did it. We packed up and went home arriving late Sunday evening and I’m still having culture shock. Write ups and photo links to come.